No Earth, No Faith

April 18th, 2018

The celebration of Earth Day each spring gives Christians an opportunity to consider God's good creation and our stewardship of it. This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday, April 22nd. The following is excerpt from GreenFaith: Mobilizing God's People to Save the Earth by Fletcher Harper.

Nature, the outdoors, the environment, is fundamental to religious faith and spirituality. Human experience affirms this. The world’s sacred texts confirm it. Human life and vitality depend on it. And, healthy religious faith is incomplete without it.

In regards to God, nature is as primary and fundamental as sacred texts. As primary and fundamental as our beliefs and rituals. As primary and fundamental as religion itself. Not more primary or fundamental—but as primary and fundamental for sure.

There’s no spiritual life that does not involve, does not start, intimately and inescapably, with the Earth. That is not enriched and sustained by the Earth. That doesn’t depend on the Earth for reawakening, rejuvenation, and renewal, for restoration and forgiveness, for life and love. Without contact with the natural world, our faith and spirituality are dangerously incomplete.

No Earth, no faith.

"GreenFaith: Mobilizing God's People to Save the Earth" (Abingdon Press, 2015)

It’s on purpose that this book starts not with the moral responsibility that spiritual and religious people have to protect the creation, but by exploring the role that the Earth can, does, and must play in our spiritual and religious lives. The Earth is a remarkable gift to our faith. It’s in relation to the natural world that many of us have our most profound spiritual experiences. It’s from the Earth that many of us draw a deep sense of awe and wonder, beauty and gratitude, community and love, and gain our first hints about the nature of God. The Earth is a gift that can shape our deepest beliefs in many ways, if we allow it. So it’s right for a book on the relationship between Earth and faith to start by acknowledging this gift and by exploring it. By seeing what it offers us spiritually. How it moves us. What it teaches us.

Getting Past the Human Soul Alone with God

For centuries, a dominant image of spiritual life and practice has been the solitary individual, deep in prayer or meditation or in the study of sacred writings. Another widespread image is that of a congregation at worship in its sanctuary, a group of people gathered in its sacred place.

The suggestion of these images is that a spiritual life is something that takes place between people alone with their Higher Power, their God, their Source. Nature doesn’t figure in either image except as a backdrop, an inert stage on which the most meaningful drama—between God and individuals—plays out.

These images no longer work.

They play into the dangerous and outdated tendency to view spirituality as something that takes place only between people, whether singly or in groups, and the divine. That it is somehow possible to connect with God outside of our actual being within the natural world. That we can, in some mysterious way, remove ourselves from the Earth when we seek oneness with our Creator.

On an obvious level, these images fail the most basic test of plausibility. We breathe, eat, and walk the Earth. Our lives take place in an incarnated context. And when we meditate or pray, worship and celebrate, seek spiritual aliveness and insight, we remain firmly within nature’s embrace, even as we reach more deeply into the heart of life for energy and meaning.

But these images of the solitary human seeker and the congregation joined in worship fail for another reason. They fail because they treat the Earth, a primary source of divine revelation, as an irrelevant distraction instead of an indispensable companion. They’re wrong because they ignore that the Earth is a gift that, very often, connects us to the sacred more powerfully than anything else. One of the primary reasons that people seek a spiritual life is because their lives feel pale, drained of vividness or energy or love or depth. Few things reconnect us with these energies more than nature.

It’s time for a new iconic image of the spiritual seeker. A congregation joined in worship should be shown outdoors, appreciating the Creator through and with creation. A sage, immersed in meditation or sacred study, should be shown in the midst of a field, embracing the divine in, through, and with the natural world. People should be shown in relationship to the creation. On a mountainside. At the sea or the side of a brook. Beneath the stars. Nature must be shown. Because it is always present. Because it very often represents the medium through which or in which people rediscover their absent vividness and personhood, the better angels of their nature. Nature is our spiritual companion and inspiration, the medium of our renewal and our vital energy. It belongs firmly within the definition of what it means to have a spiritual life, and to have faith.

Spiritual seeking without a place for nature is as inconceivable as spirituality without people.

Or without spirit.

Or without God.

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